The controversial End of Life Choice Bill has been drawn from Parliament’s ballot. It is expected to provoke much debate on a topic that has many strong advocates and opponents. JUDE BARBACK reports.

“The campaign starts now,” says ACT Leader David Seymour, who prepared the Bill. “We are long overdue for a compassionate response to the anguish faced by the small but significant minority of grievously and irremediably ill, or terminally ill, people.

“Current law leaves them no choice but to endure intolerable suffering and loss of dignity in the final days of their lives. The End of Life Choice Bill would allow people who so choose and are eligible to end their life in peace and dignity, surrounded by loved ones.”

Over the years, efforts to change the law have been made through the introduction of various members’ bills. Yet to date, none have proceeded very far.

Iain Lees-Galloway’s End of Life Choice Bill (originally introduced by Maryan Street) failed to be selected for 18 months before being withdrawn late in 2013. Former NZ First MP Peter Brown’s Death with Dignity Bill in 2003 failed in a conscience vote at the first reading stage, meaning the issue did not go before a select committee. A previous bill championed by Michael Laws in 1995 also failed in a conscience vote. An End of Life Options Bill was also published in 2015, but was not submitted to the ballot.

Seymour submitted the End of Life Choice Bill to the members’ ballot in October last year.

The Bill proposes that any New Zealander 18 years or older will be eligible for “assisted dying” if he or she suffers from either a terminal illness likely to end his or her life within six months or an irremediable medical condition causing them unbearable suffering. They must also understand the nature and consequences of assisted dying.

Seymour says the difference between his Bill and previous ones is that the decision around assisted dying is based on personal choice – assisted dying isn’t something that can be done to someone, rather it is something that person is capable of choosing at the time he or she chooses for it to happen.

The bill only applies to people who are mentally sound at the time a decision is made to end their lives. It doesn’t include advance directives, which means people can’t make decisions for themselves when they lack the mental capacity.

Euthanasia Free New Zealand believes the Bill is too open to interpretation and argues that much of the language is subjective, like “irremediable medical condition” and “terminal illness”. It is also concerned that the Bill doesn’t factor in the effects depression can have on such decisions.

The New Zealand Aged Care Association (NZACA) opposes the introduction of medically assisted dying in the event of a terminal illness or irreversible condition, mainly as it could potentially lead to coercion and elder abuse of vulnerable older New Zealanders. After canvassing its members, the NZACA concluded that older people in care should receive additional support in the provision of care as they progressed through the natural ageing process, rather than the hastening of their deaths.

A copy of the End of Life Choice Bill, together with further information including answers to common questions and criticisms, can be found at  lifechoice.org.nz.

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